June 20, 1999
STAR TRIBUNE Edition: METRO
Stay-at-home dads are engaged in a profound experiment
I hope this makes
Because I know you're the best pappy.
We've taken many hikes.
You've thrown me lots of strikes.
We've spent much time together,
Through every kind of weather.
We make model planes,
Through wind, snow and rain.
But better than this fun.
I'll always be your son.
Six years ago, my father gave me a photocopy of this handwritten poem. Next to my painstaking, awkward scrawl, he had written the following note:
"I have the original, and it means very, very much to me. Much love, Dad"
This poem speaks volumes about what I've learned from my father. And it provides a glimpse at why I have made parenting my primary job during the past decade.
According to sociologists, men like memen who are the primary care givers in their familymake up one of the fastest-growing groups in American society today. A 1997 U.S. Census Bureau report, "My Daddy Takes Care of Me! Fathers as Care Providers," found that one in four fathers (1.6 million) take care of their preschoolers while the mothers are working. When you include fathers taking care of school-age children and single fathers with primary or shared custody of their kids, our numbers reach well into the millions.
You probably know one of us. We have lots of different names for ourselves: Full-time Dad, Mr. Mom, At-Home Dad. We are your relatives, your neighbors, and your former coworkers.
Why did we become at-home dads? At neighborhood playgrounds, in Internet chat rooms, and during local meetings of Minnesota Dads At Home (yes, there is such an organization), I've asked other dads to tell me their stories. Our reasons include family economics, husband-wife personalities, professional twists and turns, divorce and simple fate. In addition to these present-day reasons, however, we have reasons related to our childhoods and our fathers.
For some dads, the decision to be "at home" stands in direct contrast to what they experienced as children. These men, after growing up in the shadow of violence, alcoholism, workahol-ism or abandonment want something different for their children. On the other hand, many at-home dads are living out values they learned from their fathersmen of an earlier generation who put family first.
Although each at-home dad travels a unique path to fatherhood, we all have the same bottom line. We assign our highest priority to the time we spend with our childrenwhether giving our babies warm bottles at 3 a.m., cutting the crust off our preschoolers' peanut-butter sandwiches or discussing the Columbine High School tragedy with our teenagers.
As pioneers, we have quickly discovered that others don't always see our lives the same way we do. The tension we sometimes feel with society comes through clearly as we talk with our own fathers. Many of our dads wonder when we're going to get a "real job."
They don't understand how we can let our wives be the breadwinners for our families. But in their reflective moments, our dads sometimes confess they envy us and our children.
As more and more men become primary care givers (and there is little doubt that the trend will continue), our society is engaging in a grand, social experiment. It's "Phase Two" of the gender-equality movement, begun a generation ago when millions of women moved out of the home and into the work force. What societal changes will evolve as a result of the greater involvement of men in parenting?
When Father's Day arrives in the year 2020, what will the greeting cards say?
At the personal level, in each of our families, at-home dads are also engaged in a profound experiment. We wonder and worry about what our children are learning from us and about us. Are we making a difference in our children's lives?
Like parents through the ages, we will never know the full answer to this question. We don't get annual reviews or quarterly report cards. For those of us with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, we invest our time and love with an almost blind faithnever getting or expecting any feedback from them that we are doing a good job. For those of us with older children, however, we can sometimes get a hint of an answer.
My dad still treasures the poem I wrote as a 9-year-old, because it gave him a window on the lessons I learned from him. Recently, I was lucky enough to get a similar glimpse into my eldest son's thoughts. As an assignment for his eighth-grade health class, he wrote an essay titled "The Man I Admire Most." Here's an excerpt from that essay:
"The man I admire most is my dad. He hardly ever loses his temper, is VERY kind, tries most of the time to lead by example not punishment. He seems to be there whenever you need him."
Today, I keep my son's essay in my billfold. It means very, very much to me. And someday, if he becomes a dad, I'll give him a copy.
Randy Wedin, the father of four boys, is a freelance science writer and a board member of Minnesota Dads At Home (MDAH). The MDAH Web site can be found at http://www. slowlane.com/mdah.